By SAMANTHA HENRY
NEWARK, N.J. - The topic of working for peace brought a crowd of more than 1,000 people to New Jersey's largest city Friday to hear a diverse group of speakers ranging from the Dalai Lama to a former member of the Bloods street gang.
The Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader opened the three-day Newark Peace Education Summit by urging participants to work on inner peace as a key prerequisite to making positive change in the world.
"The change in human society, the initiative, must start with the individual," the Dalai Lama said.
Speaking to a crowd of interfaith leaders, peace activists, educators and community leaders at The New Jersey Performing Arts Center in downtown Newark, the Dalai Lama said it was time to set a new world paradigm for peace.
"The 20th century was the century of bloodshed," he said. "The 21st century should be the century of dialogue."
The Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, was joined by two other Nobel laureates, American Jody Williams, a peace activist who shared the 1997 prize for her work on banning land mines, and Iranian-born Shirin Ebadi, a human rights activist who won the prize in 2003.
The panel featured several other speakers, including Deepak Chopra, the wellness author, and Wilbert Rideau, who served more than 12 years on death row for a murder conviction. Rideau was granted three retrials and was convicted of manslaughter, then was freed after 44 years in prison and became an award-winning journalist and author.
In a discussion that touched on the many incarnations of violence and the meaning of democracy, Williams, of Brattleboro, Vt., said the United States isn't necessarily a healthy example for the rest of the world.
"We need to look at where we are in the continuum of violence," Williams said. "The violence of tax cuts for the wealthy while ripping apart the middle class ... the violence of a nation that spends more than 50 percent of our budget on defense."
The Dalai Lama countered that despite America's problems he believed democracy to be the best structure for working toward peace.
"I really feel America is the real champion of democracy and freedom, so America has a moral responsibility," he said.
He added that people change systems, not the other way around.
"The world belongs to over 6 billion human beings, not governments or religious leaders," he said. "The world belongs to people."
The conference is being organized by New York-based Tibet House U.S. and a foundation run by Drew Katz, a philanthropist and longtime supporter of anti-crime efforts in Newark, which is just west of New York City and is often scarred by violence.
Newark once was booming, with its 1940s population of about 430,000 working in good-paying jobs in the teeming textile and manufacturing industries. But after World War II, the city began a postwar descent into racial unrest, white flight, crime and corruption. Its population suffered, dwindling to about 275,000 now.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat who has gained a national profile for his efforts to transform a city once viewed as a symbol of urban decay into a national model of urban renewal, said Friday the city was honored to play host to the event.
The summit features 100 speakers during three days of panel discussions on peace.
Conference organizers invited several local community activists to speak at the conference, including Dashaun "Jiwe" Morris of Newark, a member of the Bloods who has renounced violence and now works to help other young men stay off the streets. Morris spoke on a panel about youth violence with Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone who is an author and peace activist, as the two marveled at the similarities in their life experiences.
"I know a lot of us were not born to want this for ourselves; a lot of us were not born asking for drug addicted parents, living in the projects or on Section 8, and not eating proper meals and living in violent neighborhoods," Morris said. "We don't ask for that; so a lot of times our lives are kind of shaped by that, at least as children - you have to be looked at as a victim."
Organizers offered discounted student tickets and scholarship tickets for local young people, underwritten by others paying $150 to $300 to attend the weekend conference.
Several eighth-graders from the Quitman Street Community School in Newark said they were excited to be chosen as volunteers to help direct people to the conference's different venues.
"I hope this really helps our community, because there's a lot of violence in the streets," said 14-year-old Eric Martinez of the peace summit. "To actually have this here in Newark - it's incredible."